WASHINGTON, OCTOBER 28, 2013 (Computerworld) By Patrick Thibodeau October 25, 2013 - One in six IT projects face out of control costs, and bring much disruption, making them 'black swans' [IN I.T. A BLACK SWAN IS A PROJECT WITH AN OUT-OF-CONTROL-COST]

Despite partisan sniping over the Affordable Care Act, members of a U.S. House committee probing the problems at Healthcare.gov Thursday asked some tough, IT-specific questions that revealed some key facts.

Two members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, U.S. Reps. Greg Walden (R-Ore.) and Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.), were especially focused on the testing process for the ACA website that's had problems since its launch on Oct. 1.

It turns out that project's 55 contractors had only two weeks to conduct end-to-end testing of Healthcare.gov prior to launch.

"What's the recommended industry standard for end-to-end testing," asked Walden.

"Months would be nice," said Andrew Slavitt, executive vice president of Optum, one of the contractors that built the site. Cheryl Campbell, senior vice president of CGI Federal and a witness, perhaps the largest contractor on the project, agreed with Slavitt.

The contractors for the site all said they performed their part of the project as required while making it clear that they weren't responsible for the overall outcome of Healthcare.gov.

None could say, with any certainty, when the website will perform as designed. There was no one from the federal government to explain the project's IT decision-making, though federal officials are expected to testify as early as next week.

The problems at Healthcare.gov may qualify as a black swan event, something that's difficult to predict and is disruptive.

A black swan event in Mother Nature might include a solar geomagnetic storm that knocks out sensitive electronics and power grids. In IT, a black swan event is a project with out-of-control costs, and consequences so severe that it may cause a company to fail.

The cost of Healthcare.gov is rising, but to what extent has yet to be revealed by federal officials.

The disruptive consequences have been severe enough to prompt President Obama to express dissatisfaction with the site.

Perhaps more importantly for the Obama administration is whether the IT events at Healthcare.gov, such as data error and availability issues, will force it to further adjust deadlines of its signature policy project.

Approximately one out of five or six IT projects face exploding costs, according to Alexander Budzier, a researcher at the Said Business School at the University of Oxford. Budzier and Bent Flyvbjerg, a professor at Oxford's business school, have gathered data from 4,300 worldwide IT projects in the private and public sectors whose typical costs range between $1 million and $10 million.

IT projects perform worse than physical projects, such as large dam construction, where one-in-ten may see cost blow-outs, said Budzier. In IT, 18% of projects turn into outliers that "really run out control, and that's a usually high rate," he said.

An IT project with a cost overrun of 150% or more is in the black swan category. Such projects seriously disrupt businesses and costs some workers their careers, he said.

"You can't really forecast which [IT projects] are going to blow up," said Budzier, though in hindsight reasons like too tight deadlines may become clear. A tell-tale clue of problems ahead is a categorization of a project as "unique," he said.

"If your system integrator, if your in-house IT, if everybody tells you that this project is unique, that's a clear sign that this is going to go massively wrong," said Budzier.

His research was detailed in a Harvard Business Review report.

"Projects are and remain risky," said Budzier.

Analyst have different methodologies and approaches for categorizing successful and failed IT projects, but all agree generally that IT projects have a high chance of failure.

In a report last year, Gartner found that 28% of IT projects with budget exceeding $1 million fail.

The Standish Group, when considering projects of $10 million or more, said that 52% were challenged, meaning they faced budget, schedule or user expectation issues, 41% were failures, and 6.4% were successful.

Custom development software firm Geneca did a survey of 600 business and IT executives and found that 75% of respondents said their projects "are either always or usually doomed right from the start."

As the survey drilled on, though, most were eventually pleased with a development project outcome, with 21% terming a project as only "somewhat successful."

At the Capitol Hill hearing, the contractors said Healthcare.gov was improving daily, but that was about all they would say about the outlook.

"I represent Silicon Valley and find this very hard follow," said Rep. Eshoo, after hearing explanations from the contractors. She was trying, unsuccessfully, to get details about the specific external and internal testing practices.

"Amazon and eBay don't crash the week before Christmas," said Eshoo. By Patrick Thibodeau October 23, 2013 06:15 AM ET

Congress to probe Healthcare.gov for politics

Was it politics or just bad design at Healthcare.gov? The problems with mobile may offer a clue -

The U.S. House of Congress

The U.S. House will begin drilling into the problems at Healthcare.gov on Thursday when a panel of project contractors face the the Energy and Commerce Committee.

Fireworks are likely.

For House Republicans, the Website's performance issues are a metaphor for their broader criticisms about the Affordable Care Act (ACA).

Now they want to determine whether politics, and not best IT practices, shaped the design of the ACA website. They have some grounds for looking at the question.

When the Website launched on Oct. 1, users were initially required to complete an application prior to shopping for insurance plans. That process since changed, and users can now get an idea of the plans and their cost without turning over personal information.

But the damage was done.

The design used at launch, which prevented anonymous shopping, was a political decision "to mask the 'sticker shock' of Obamacare," wrote U.S. Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), chairman of House Committee on Oversight and Government and Reform, in a letter Tuesday to federal CIO Steve VanRoekel and federal CTO Todd Park.

Issa wants a boatload of documents and explanations from VanRoekel about what went wrong with Healthcare.gov, which he termed a "colossal failure."

But did politics play a role in the role in the initial design, as Issa contends, or was it just questionable design? There's evidence of the latter, when mobile is considered.

Matt Powell, CIO of Kirshenbaum Bond Senecal + Partners, an integrated ad agency in New York that handles some big accounts such as automaker BMW, is very critical of the mobile design. Powell isn't weighing in on the politics around this issue, but he has assessed Healthcare.gov's implementation and questions some of the design decisions.

"One of the things that seems like a big miss, just in terms of delivering the right product to the right people in the right way, is the fundamental lack of mobile accessibility," said Powell.

Users accessing Healthcare.gov will hit a landing page designed for mobile use, but mobile functionality has not been extended into the entire site. From a mobile perspective, the site "is pretty bad," said Powell.

Once users get past the mobile landing pages, they will be doing a lot of pinching, zooming and scrolling to get through the Website. The risk to the ACA program is that people will tire of it and leave, said Powell.

This lack easy mobile use is a major issue, especially for the population the ACA is trying to reach -- young adults, says Powell. "They have a massive propensity to be mobile first as opposed to desktop Web users," he said.

Powell also agrees with the criticisms of the decision to require users to turn over personal information before learning more about the policies.

The exchanges put up a "hefty hurdle" just to get people in the door. "It just seems like a really bad way to drive the outcome that we want," he said.

President Barack Obama on Monday expressed his own frustration with the rollout of the website, which has suffered availability issues, apparent load balancing problems, and errors in data. At the same time, Obama defended the law, and said "the Affordable Care Act is not just a website."

The first of what will likely be a string of hearings on the ACA, is slated for Thursday before the Energy and Commerce Committee.

Scheduled to testify are contractors on the project, CGI Federal, an IT services firm, Optum, a healthcare technology company, Equifax Workforce Solutions, and Serco, a government focused contractor.

Patrick Thibodeau covers SaaS and enterprise applications, outsourcing, government IT policies, data centers and IT workforce issues for Computerworld. Follow Patrick on Twitter at Twitter@DCgov, or subscribe to Patrick's RSS feed Thibodeau RSS. His email address is pthibodeau@computerworld.com.

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